International travel guides of the ancient Greeks

15 July 2020
International travel in the ancient world didn't include too many buffet breakfasts. Yet some ancient travellers still had the urge to write travel guides, and Daniel Hanigan couldn't be happier.

Considering how detailed and even chatty online maps are today, it’s strange to think there was a time when people were wrestling with the very idea of what a map should be.

It was the Greeks who first began taking maps seriously as factual documents (some earlier cartographers depicted religious ideas as actual places). The Greeks (and later, the Romans) also had another way of guiding people through the world, called a periplous, which translates as ‘sailing around’.

An ancient Greek periplous.

Originally a description of the Black Sea in 25 books, only the opening of this periplous remains. It was written by Greek historian and philosopher, Arrian before 132 CE and republished, as here, in 1533.

A periplous was a chronological document, like an itinerary, indicating landmarks to guide your journey. Many of them talk of places we might still visit today, but also of places and civilisations that now exist only on those pages.

Perhaps part of the reason that periplography (as the writing of periplous is called) has stayed relatively understudied is that it’s best done by people who can read ancient Greek and who are happy to trawl through documents piecing together and cross-referencing ancient journeys. Daniel Hanigan (BA(Hons) ’17 MPhil ’19) is one of those people.

“Learning Greek was the most remarkable experience of my life,” he says. “It’s very technical and a new way of thinking, but parts of the language are lost, so there’s this fantastic, almost detective work in piecing it all together. The payoff is that you get to read some of the most remarkable poetry and literature ever written.”

Despite a studious disposition, it was never obvious that Hanigan was destined for the classics. Raised on a dairy farm in northern New South Wales, and later in the western suburbs of Sydney, neither parent had academic leanings and Hanigan himself admits he wasn’t a dedicated student. “I was pretty unfocussed,” he says. “But I was good at ancient history, so while I studied mathematics during my first year at uni, I had electives in ancient history, archaeology, and anthropology – all of which I loved.”

University of Sydney alumni Daniel Hanigan

The early journeys of the ancient Greeks have given Daniel Hanigan a fascinating journey of his own.

Making these subjects the focus of his studies led Hanigan to winning the University Medal in 2016. Now in Cambridge doing his PhD in classics, he is grappling with the question of whether the many periploi written over 800 years were specifically created as travel guides. Some academics are unwilling to bring them together under one classification because their styles vary so markedly, but Hanigan sees that as an inevitable product of who wrote them. 

"There’s the periplous of Arian, an administrative general for the Roman emperor, Hadrian,” says Hanigan. “His periplous was sort of a military report. The earliest one was Hanno’s Periplous of the African Coast. Hanno might have been a Carthaginian King who went to colonies in Africa. At one point, his periplous seems to describe sailing past an erupting volcano.”

“… Large torrents of fire emptied into the sea, and the land was inaccessible because of the heat. Quickly and in fear, we sailed away from that place. Sailing on for four days, we saw the coast by night full of flames. In the middle was a big flame, taller than the others … By day, this turned out to be a very high mountain, which was called Chariot of the Gods.” Periplous of the African Coast (4th century BCE), Hanno the Navigator 

The reference to Chariot of the Gods demonstrates another feature of some periploi: insights into the language and history of the sites visited. “Our best guess here is that Hanno is referring to Mount Cameroon, largely because it is known locally as Seat of the Gods," says Hanigan. “So, Chariot of the Gods, is likely an adaptation of that local name.”

As dramatic as Hanno’s report of the volcano might be, there was a tug-of-war in the ancient world about what a periplous should contain. For example, Markianos of Heraklea championed the removal of anything other than pure navigational information. 

For Hanigan though, the insights and perceptions beyond navigation are where the real value is. “This is the Greeks coming into contact with cultures that are fundamentally not like their own. As our world is changed by forces like migration and tourism, that’s one of the challenges of today.”

Written by George Dodd. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim.

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